September 6, 2009

Utilitarian Buddhists

On her blog Wandering Dhamma, Brooke Schedneck writes about how meditation is often presented in terms of its practical benefit.
One idea that was repeated frequently in my reading of the stack of books the librarian continued to pile higher and higher at my desk was the ‘practical benefits’ of meditation. The way that contemporary meditation teachers are discussing these more mundane benefits I would say is a kind of reinterpretation. In the early suttas we don’t see a proliferation of writings about how meditation will help with stress at work or managing emotions during complicated family situations. Obviously this has much to do with changing the tradition so it fits into a modern context, but it is more than just updating—there is a reinterpretation here that focuses more on practical benefits. But the question is why? Why is discussing more practical benefits necessary? Why this persuasion? Can the technique and the tradition of meditation within Buddhism speak for itself?
I certainly fall into this group of people who reinterpret meditation in terms of its usefulness. I suppose that this framing of meditation makes it easier to sell because it aligns with themes understood by a broad audience (anxiety reduction, blood pressure, concentration building, etc.) and also is easy to prove. But it’s another thing altogether were our only understanding of meditation to be in the context of simpler utilitarian terms.


  1. The Buddha said he came to teach suffering and the end of suffering. Sounds pretty practical to me!

  2. Are you thus proposing that the fruit of these teachings are, in the words of Brooke, “mundane benefits”? Or are you saying that these utilitarian perspectives are not reinterpretations at all? Did you actually read Brooke’s article?

  3. Arun - As you well know, the fruit of the Dhamma is liberation, awakening to the way things are. I don't find it helpful to separate so-called 'mundane or this-worldly benefits' from 'transcendental or other-worldly benefits' because whatever benefits there are, are always attained in the here-and-now, the present moment, whilst developing the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha is said to have always adapted his teaching to the level of understanding of his audience, so there already is this inherent notion of various benefits to practice. So, yes, I'm not sure these are reinterpretations at all.

  4. Wow, I don't believe it, but I agree with Arun (and Brooke) for maybe the first time. :-)

  5. @dialogicmeditation: From a purely textual standpoint, what we write about the Buddha Dharma is very much a reinterpretation—both your words and mine. The actual benefits of the teachings may not have changed, but the way we choose to talk about them is very different now at the beginning of the 21st century than it was at the time the sutras were committed memory. Just look at how you and I highlight certain aspects, while glossing over and downplaying others.

    @Kyle: Watch out! I’ve got a post stored where I’m going to agree with you again!